MSF Calls on Thailand to Halt Forcible Return of Hmong Refugees to Laos and urges Thai Authorities to Take Steps to Guarantee Refugees' Rights

Bangkok/Paris, 31 October 2007 - The international medical humanitarian organization Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) today called on the Thai government to halt all forced repatriation proceedings against the 7,500 ethnic Hmong refugees from Laos who are currently confined to a camp in northern Thailand's Petchabun province. The refugees, who claim to have fled violence and persecution in Laos, are deeply fearful of being returned to their country.

As the only international organization working inside the camp, MSF urges the Thai government to carry out a proper objective screening process controlled by an independent, legitimate third party, such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). This third party would assess the legitimacy of their fears, verify their claims to refugee status and protection, and assure that any repatriation to Laos is voluntary.

"The Hmong refugees we have been caring for in the Huai Nam Khao camp since 2005 constantly tell us how afraid they are of being sent back to Laos," said Gilles Isard, MSF head of mission in Thailand. "Yet every day, they are threatened with an imminent return to Laos—from where many claim to have fled persecution and violence—with no credible guarantees for their safety upon return. This not only violates international standards on repatriation of refugees, but shows a basic disrespect for the dignity and safety of people who are living in fear."

In May 2007, the Thai and Lao governments signed the Lao-Thai Committee on Border Security agreement, which allows Thailand to send back Lao Hmong asylum seekers upon arrival. In September, the Thai and Lao authorities announced their intention to forcibly repatriate the Hmong refugees before the end of 2008 without any independent screening process. According to international standards, repatriation cannot be forced or imposed on individuals fearing for their lives or safety. Furthermore, any repatriation process must remain linked to international guarantees for safety upon return. Neither of these conditions has been guaranteed for the refugee population in Huai Nam Khao camp.

In the medical consultations conducted by the MSF team, the main need voiced by the Hmong refugees is that of protection. Our patients say they are extremely afraid about the prospect of a forced return to Laos. For some of them, this situation produces intense stress and psychological suffering. Though our team provides psychological support for this population, it cannot respond to the real need the people are voicing; the need to be protected from a forced return. This is why MSF is calling upon Thai authorities to accept the presence of another organization, such as UNHCR, which can better judge and assess the demands made by the Hmong refugees confined to Huai Nam Khao camp and ensure that their rights are protected.

Since July 2005, MSF has assisted the Hmong refugees in the Thai village of Huai Nam Khao in Petchabun province. MSF teams provide medical and relief assistance to the 7,500 refugees, including health care, psychosocial care, food, relief supplies, water, and sanitation. Another MSF team working in Maesot, on the border with Myanmar, treats tuberculosis in an average of 600 Burmese migrant workers and refugees each year. Additionally, MSF teams are treating people living with HIV/AIDS in Thailand